Wednesday, March 1, 2017


This is a very interesting topic.  It is a subject that has always been defined by the great male painters that have ruled the art scene throughout the ages: Rubens, Michelangelo, Raphael, David, Goya, etc ...are the names you hear, time and time again.   Let us define "History Painting", it is the genre of painting that is defined by the subject rather than the style, and it usually is in a very large format. History paintings usually depict a moment in a narrative story, rather than a specific and static subject, as in a portrait. History painting's subjects most commonly are: religious, allegorical, mythological and of course, scenes from history itself. The term is derived from the wider senses of the word "historia" in Latin and Italian, meaning "story" or "narrative" and essentially means "story painting".  Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century Italian humanist, argued that "multi figure history painting was the noblest form of art, the most difficult, which required mastery of all skills".  Specific subjects include religious scenes from the Life of Christ, as well as narrative scenes from mythology and allegorical scenes.  History painting should not be confused with genre painting which depicts ordinary people engaged in everyday activities,  examples are, domestic scenes, market and street scenes.

To understand why there are so few women who practiced history painting the reader must know that females were not allowed to study academic art or the male nude until the 20th century.  

Traditionally, art academies throughout Europe barred women from study and exhibiting their work.  Very few women achieved membership in the art academies of Europe. Typically women who triumphed in achieving artistic training were related to a male artist, like a father/daughter relationship.

The question we can now ask, who were the daring women, that not only managed to achieve artistic training and success in the field, but ventured into the GRAND terrain of history painting between the time period of the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries) and the 19th century.

A remarkable discovery is a 21 foot long Last Supper painting by an artist-nun, from Florence, Italy by the name of Suor Plautilla-Nelli (1524-1588).  Plautilla Nelli joined the convent--Santa Catarina of Siena, at the age of 14.  It was run by Dominican Friars, who promoted devotional painting by religious women to avoid sloth.  Nelli's Last Supper painting is the only known Last Supper  painted by a female.
The Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli, from Santa Maria Novella, Florence Italy (currently under restoration)

Detail of The Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli (currently under restoration)

Here is a  10 foot magnificent version of The Lamentation with Saints by Nelli:

Lamentation with Saints in The San Marco Museum, Florence, Italy
by Suor Plautilla Nelli

Caterina Van Hemessen (1527-1581) was a Flemish painter known for her small scale portraits and religious compositions. Giorgio Vasari named her as an important Flemish painter in his "Vite" ("Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects"). Here is an impressive religious composition by Hemessen.

"Ascent to Calvary and Encounter with Veronica" by Caterina Van Hemessen"

Lavinia Fontana (Italian 1552-1614) was a very successful artist in her day, being the breadwinner of the family at age 13. Here is an impressive composition by Lavinia:

Assumption Of The Virgin With Saints Peter Chrysologus And Casein,1584,
by Lavinia  Fontana

Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1656) was an Italian Baroque painter, of the generation following Caravaggio. She was the first woman to achieve membership in the Accademia de Belle Arti di Firenze in Italy.  She was the daughter of Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi.  She painted scenes of strong and suffering women.  Her best known example is Judith Slaying Holofernes. She painted two versions of this scene.  It captures the brutality of the scene with dynamic strength.

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620, Oil on canvas, 70 x 47 in,
Schloss Weibenstein, Bavaria, Germany
Judith Slaying Holofernes second version by Artemisia Gentileschi,1620-21, oil on canvas, 78.3 x64 in, Uffizi Gallery,
Florence, Italy
Angelica Kauffman (1751-1807) was a Swiss Neoclassical painter, remembered primarily as a history painter.  She was a founding member of the Royal Academy in London in 1768.

Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, by Angelica Kauffman, pre-1782, Oil on Canvas 34 1/2 x28 in,
collection of Germaldegalerie, Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany

Bacchus and Ariadne by Angelica Kauffman, pre-1782, Private collection

The Legend of Cupid and Pysche by Angelica Kauffman, Private collection

Constance Mayer (1775-1821) was a French painter, who painted portraits, as well as allegorical works.  Here are a couple of her lovely allegorical paintings
The Dream of Happiness by Constance Mayer, 1819, Oil on canvas, Louvre museum, Paris, France

Venus and Sleeping Cupid  by Constance Mayer, 1806, Oil on Canvas, 38 x 57 in, 
Wallace Collection, London
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) was a French painter, known for her expertise and realism in painting animals.  She was decorated with the French Legion of Honor by the Empress Eugenie and was promoted to officer of the order in 1894.  One of her most impressive paintings is the complex "Horse Fair".  I personally think this animal/genre scene, has so many elements of a history painting, if Rosa would have entitled it something like King George's Favorite Horse perhaps it could cross into the genre. One of my favorite paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection.
The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, ~1854, Oil on canvas, 96 x 199 in, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elizabeth Thompson or known as "Lady Butler" 1846-1933, a British painter, who like Angelica Kauffman achieved fame for History Paintings.

Scotland Forever by Lady Butler , 1881, Oil on Canvas, Leeds Art Gallery, Yorkshire, England

"The Return From Inkerman" by Lady Butler, 1877, Oil on canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, England
The Roll Call By Lady Butler, 36 x72 in, Oil on canvas, Royal collection
(Private Collection of the British Royal Family)

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe 1850-1936, was an American Painter and founding member and teacher of the historic Art Student's League of New York City.  She painted works about revolutionary and colonial American history.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie Augusta Brownstone, 1914, Oil on canvas, Pilgrim Hall Museum Collection, Massachusetts

The Peace Ball at Fredericksburg, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1897, oil on canvas, 31x50 in , Collection of the Newark Museum, NJ, (Book reference source for painting photo "Women Artists" by Margaret Barlow, 1999, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, pg 124-125)

These History Painters achieved something special and noble, against all odds..... an inspirational story.

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